Saturday, August 31, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 76

Psalm 76 is all about God's almighty power. In the first verse, the psalmist, Asaph, identifies God's special regard for Israel: “In Judah God is known, His Name is great in Israel.” God has revealed Himself to the Israelites. The Israelites, in turn, hold His Name as great. God's Name is not merely a word of identification; it reveals His character, His honor, and His authority. It tells Who He is in Himself. He has revealed this Name to Israel, and the Israelites recognize it as something great and wonderful. This revelation and recognition point to relationship. God and Israel have a relationship. 

In fact, God has chosen to establish an “abode” in Jerusalem, a “dwelling place in Zion” (verse 2). This is the Temple, where God has decided to concentrate His presence and receive worship from His people. 

From Jerusalem, God protects Israel and displays His almighty power. “There He broke the flashing arrows, the shield, the sword, and the weapons of war” (verse 3). The verb used in this verse is shâbar. It is in the Piel verb-form, which means that it is intensified. God does just break the weapons of war. He smashes them, shatters them, and breaks them into a thousand little pieces. Human might is no match for God. He is the almighty One. When He fights for His people, their enemies have no chance for victory. 

In verse 4, the psalmist sings praise: “Glorious are You, more majestic than the everlasting mountains.” The Hebrew text actually reads something like, “Resplendent are You, more majestic than the mountains of prey.” Let's break down the verse in order to capture the psalmist's meaning. The word for glorious or resplendent is 'ôr. In its Niphal verb-form, as it is used here, it means to be lighted up or illuminated. God shines out before His people. His is a light in Himself and a light for them. The word for majestic is 'addı̂yr, which can also be translated as mighty, noble, famous, gallant, glorious, lordly, excellent, worthy, or powerful. Each possibility suggests different nuances of the word, but they all apply to God. He is more majestic than the mountains of prey, those strongholds of power in the world. These mountains, these worldly rulers, devour their subjects and the principalities around them. They eat them up as surely and totally as a wild beast destroys its prey. But God is stronger than even these earthly terrors. 

The next two verses, 5-6, describe what God does to such “mountains of prey”: “The stouthearted were stripped of their spoil; they sank into sleep; none of the troops was able to lift a hand. At Your rebuke, O God of Jacob, both rider and horse lay stunned.” God has vanquished the worldly rulers, taking their prey from them. Even though they were strong, God plundered them, and they sank into sleep. According to the Hebrew, they “slept the sleep.” They died. Their troops, all their powerful warriors, could do nothing to help. They were rendered powerless by the rebuke of the all-powerful God. The Hebrew word for stunned, râdam, can also refer to death. God took control. His enemies fell.

The psalmist again breaks into praise: “But You indeed are awesome! Who can stand before You when once Your anger is roused?” The Hebrew word for awesome is yârê', which suggests fear and reverence. When we recognize God for Who He is, we feel very, very small. We bow. We kneel. We even fall on our faces. God loves us very much, but He is still the almighty God, and He deserves the highest reverence. When God breathes out His anger, no one can stand before Him. The God-fearing fall in worship; everyone else falls in terror. 

The psalmist continues: “From the heavens You uttered judgment; the earth feared and was still when God rose up to establish judgment, to save all the oppressed of the earth.” God caused His judgment (Hebrew dûn) to ring out through the heavens. The whole earth was still in fear (yârê'). God rose up to give His verdict (Hebrew mishpâṭ, judgment but also verdict or sentence). He will save all the oppressed of the earth. He will deliver those who had been the prey of the powerful. He will give victory to those who are humble and poor, to those who are weak and afflicted. With no power of their own, these are the ones who have learned to turn to God as their power. God will rescue them and set them free. 

The next verse seems confusing at first: “Human wrath serves only to praise You, when You bind the last bit of Your wrath around You.” How can human wrath praise God? Wouldn't it offend Him? Commentator Albert Barnes explains, “The wicked conduct of a child is an 'occasion' for the display of the just character and the wise administration of a parent; the act of a pirate, a rebel, a murderer, furnishes an 'occasion' for the display of the just principles of law, and the stability and power of a government. In like manner, the sins of the wicked are made an occasion for the display of the divine perfections in maintaining law; in the administering of justice; in preserving order.” God brings good out of evil. When humans rebel, God corrects them, and we see His great justice. When humans make messes, God cleans them up, and we see His great power. When humans sin and repent, God forgives them, and we see His great love. 

The psalm ends with an instruction and one more reminder of God's almighty power. “Make vows to the Lord Your God,” the psalmist advises, “and perform them; let all who are around Him bring gifts... (verse 11). When people make vows to God, they bind themselves to Him in a covenant relationship. They become God's family, with all the benefits and responsibilities that entails. They must fulfill their vows and act according to their new position as God's people. The verb for perform is shâlam, which means to make good, to complete, to finish, and to make safe. It is used in its intensive form in this verse; this is serious business. The verb also has connotations of the covenant and of peace. If God's people keep the covenant, they will have peace. The psalmist further instructs his listeners to bring gifts to God. The verb for bring, yâbal, has a ring of formality to it. It suggests liturgy, procession, and pomp. These gifts, then, probably refer to the sacrifices of Jewish worship. God's people must worship Him properly, bringing Him their gifts but most of all bringing Him themselves.

Why must the people make vows to God and bring Him gifts? He is “the One Who is awesome” (verse 11). He deserves our reverence. He deserves our love. He is the almighty One, who has the power to cut off “the spirit of princes,” and inspire “fear in the kings of the earth” (verse 12). He is the One Who defeats the enemies of the people, those “mountains of prey” who misuse their power. His power is infinitely greater than theirs. He has the whole universe under His control. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Little Something Extra...Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

Promises Fulfilled

The Babylonian exile was the height of tragedy for the Jewish people. Torn from their homeland, their Temple destroyed, they were cut off from everything they loved. Even God seemed distant. They knew they had sinned and broken the covenant. At least some of them knew they had received exactly what they deserved. But hadn't God sworn a covenant oath to them? Didn't He consider them His children? Where was He now? Why had He abandoned them?

In today's First Reading from Isaiah 66, God has a message for His exiled people. There is a reason for this time of exile, something beyond Israel's sins and the strength of foreign powers. God has sent His people among the Gentile nations as a sign and a witness. As fugitives, they will spread out across the world, bringing with them their faith in the one true God. They will proclaim God's glory and fame to nations that have never heard of Him. They will show the Gentiles Who God is. 

God also has a promise for the Jews. They will come home, but they will not be alone. God tells them that they “shall bring all your brothers and sisters from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, on horses and in chariots, in carts, upon mules and dromedaries, to Jerusalem, My holy mountain...” Israel will bring the Gentiles home with them! The nations will arrive in Jerusalem in great numbers, by every known means of transportation. The Jews will invite their Gentile brothers and sisters to join them in the true worship of the true God, for thanks to the witness of the exiles, they will know Who He is and what He expects. 

God ends with another promise: “Some of these I will take as priests and Levites...” This must have shocked the Jews. God would make the Gentiles into priests and Levites? He would let them serve in the Temple? He would actually allow them to offer sacrifice? Yes, He will. And He did.

In today's Gospel (Luke 13:22-30), Jesus repeats the promises God made through Isaiah. Listen again to His words.

And people will come from the east and the west
and from the north and the south
and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.

Jesus is speaking to the Jews, who tend to be too confident that they will be saved simply because they are the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But Jesus says that this false confidence won't get them very far. Unless they “strive to enter through the narrow gate,” to live the life Jesus has proclaimed and expects, they will be left outside the Kingdom. 

For behold,” Jesus continues, “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” The Jews may have been the first to know God's revelation and to enter into a covenant with Him, but unless they are willing to progress, to keep moving forward, they will be last. The Gentiles, who have been the last to hear about God but are eager to accept His message and follow Him, will be first. They will come to His feast. They will dine with Him in the kingdom. 

We are those Gentiles whom God has collected into His kingdom. He has made some of our number priests to offer sacrifice. He has allowed us to share in His feast. Take a few moments today to be grateful for promises fulfilled.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 75

Unlike most of the psalms we've been studying, Psalm 75 was not written by David. Instead, it is inscribed, “A Psalm of Asaph.” I had never heard of Asaph before this, but it turns out that he is a rather fascinating character with a long and interesting life. Richard Thompson presents Asaph's life in his article “Who is Asaph?”. According to Thompson, Asaph was a Levite who lived during the reigns of David, Solomon, and Rehoboam. David appointed the musically-talented Asaph as his director of music at the Tabernacle, a position he also held at Solomon's Temple. Asaph wrote twelve psalms of his own and probably composed the musical settings for many of David's psalms. 

Thompson points out that Asaph witnessed the highs and lows of Israel. He saw David's triumph as he brought the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. He experienced the peace of Israel during David's days and the strength of David's leadership. He grieved with David over Absalom's betrayal but was certainly relieved when David was back in power. He probably took great interest in David's preparations to build the Temple, and while he mourned David's death, he was excited about the possibilities of Solomon's rule. He celebrated the completion and dedication of the Temple but gradually became disillusioned by Solomon's immorality, luxury, and idolatry. He worried, too, about the people's growing discontent over Solomon's heavy taxes. Both Asaph and his brother Zechariah spoke out, warning the king that he needed to change his ways. Zechariah was killed in the Temple by Solomon's men. Asaph was probably extremely concerned when Solomon's son Rehoboam took the throne. The corruption continued and worsened. As a very old man, Asaph was horrified to see the northern kingdom split from the southern kingdom. As Thompson says, “The Kingdom was destroyed, the Temple was in ruins, many of his own family had been killed,” and the kings of Israel had turned to evil. Asaph, however, continued to cling to God and hope in Him, as we shall see in his psalms. 

Psalm 75 begins with thanksgiving. “We give thanks to You, O God; we give thanks; Your name is near. People tell of Your wondrous deeds.” The Hebrew verb for “give thanks” is yâdâh. It appears twice in this verse, both times in its Hiphil verbal stem followed by le, which indicates a reference to formal worship. This thanksgiving is probably taking place in the Tabernacle or the Temple. Certainly God's Name is near, for the Israelites recognized the Tabernacle and Temple as the locus of God's presence on earth. Remember, too, that God's Name refers to more than an identifying word. God's Name encompasses His character, His authority, and His glory. His Name is shorthand for everything He is. The psalmist, then, is giving thanks for Who God is. He is also grateful for what God has done, all those wondrous deeds God has performed for His people throughout salvation history. 

In verses 2-5, the psalmist offers a message directly from God. God reminds us, “At the set time that I appoint I will judge with equity” (verse 2). God is in control. He will select the time and place for His judgment. It will come, but we don't know when. We can be sure, however, that God will judge with equity. The Hebrew word for equity is mêyshâr. It carries connotations of uprightness, sincerity, and smoothness. God's judgment is perfect. We can trust Him for that. But we must be ready when His appointed time comes. 

God continues, “When the earth totters, with all its inhabitants, it is I who keep its pillars steady” (verse 3). This verse should be of great comfort for us. God is emphasizing again that He is in control. The earth and everything in it is melting away. The Hebrew verb for totters, mûg, suggests helplessness and terror. Everything seems to be falling apart. But not really. God is still holding us up. He is keeping the pillars of the world steady. He has everything firmly under control. He is directing everything even if we can't see it. We must trust Him.

God has a warning for us, though. He says to the boastful, to those who praise themselves, “Do not boast” (verse 4). All praise must be directed to God. He also warns the wicked (Hebrew râshâ‛ - evil, guilty, offenders), “Do not lift up your horn; do not lift up your horn on high, or speak with insolent neck” (verses 4-5). The Hebrew word for horn is qeren, which figuratively means power or strength. God is telling the wicked not to be like aggressive animals, throwing their powerful horns around and goring everyone in sight. They are not to push their power and strength on others. They are not to impose their wicked wills. They are to hold their tongues and refrain from arrogant, impudent speech. They are not to be stubborn and “stiff necked,” glorying in their pride. 

Why? There will be consequences for boastful and wicked behavior. They will not come from the human world, “but it is God Who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another” (verse 7). God, Who knows the heart, humbles those Who act against Him (Hebrew shâphêl – to humiliate, to bring low). He squashes their pride and arrogance. He also raises up those who follow Him, setting them in lofty places and extolling them (Hebrew rûm). 

The next verse presents a vivid image of God's just judgment (verse 8). God holds a foaming cup of wine, fully mixed with spices that increase its strength. He will pour it out upon the world, and the wicked will stagger under its influence. They will have to drink the cup down to its dregs, the bitter sediment at the bottom. They will experience every last consequence of their sins, and it will not be pleasant. 

The psalmist, on the other hand, “will rejoice forever” and “sing praises to the God of Jacob.” The Hebrew word translated as rejoice, nâgad, is actually much stronger. It means to announce, declare, make known, proclaim, expound, confess, and avow. The psalmist has a story, a message, and he intends to proclaim it forever. He will tell the truth about God and His mercy and justice, and he will praise God for Who He is and what He has done for His people. 

The psalm ends with a final reminder from God Himself: “All the horns of the wicked I will cut off, but the horns of the righteous shall be exalted” (verse 10). He will destroy the power and strength of the evil but lift up the power and strength of the just. Justice will prevail.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Little Something Extra...Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Trials of Truth

Today's reading remind us that standing up for the truth can get us into trouble, but God calls us to do it anyway. 

Jeremiah is a prime example. In the two verses before our reading starts, Jeremiah speaks God's message to the people: 

Thus says the LORD: “Those who remain in this city shall die by means of the sword, starvation, and disease; but those who go out to the Chaldeans shall live. Their lives shall be spared them as spoils of war that they may live.” Thus says the LORD: “This city shall certainly be handed over to the army of the king of Babylon; he shall capture it.”

This wasn't something the people wanted to hear, and the princes and King Zedekiah definitely didn't want Jeremiah running around spreading messages like that. They would end up with a riot on their hands! So they silenced him. With the king's permission, the princes threw Jeremiah into a muddy cistern and left him there to starve. 

But God was looking out for Jeremiah, who was fearless about speaking His truth. Ebed-Melech, a court official, appealed to the King for the prophet's life. Always a fickle monarch, Zedekiah gave Ebed-Melech permission to rescue Jeremiah, which he did immediately, but not before Jeremiah had suffered greatly for speaking the truth.

In the second reading, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that Jesus Himself suffered the trials of truth: He endured the cross, despising its shame, and Consider how He endured such opposition from sinners... We, too, shall struggle against opposition, the writer says, but we must not lose heart. Jesus has gone before us. He has given us a path to follow and a goal to seek. In every difficulty, we must fix our eyes upon Jesus, remembering the joy we find in Him, even if we have to resist evil to the point of shedding our blood.

Jesus Himself tells us in today's Gospel that His truth will not bring peace in this world. Listen again to His words:

Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?
No, I tell you, but rather division.
From now on a household of five will be divided,
three against two and two against three;
a father will be divided against his son
and a son against his father,
a mother against her daughter
and a daughter against her mother,
a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.

The truth often brings conflict, especially when those closest to us do not accept it and ridicule us for our faith. We must be prepared for the trials of truth and hold fast to God, Who calls us to speak the truth always and trust Him to take care of the rest.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 68

Psalm 68 is a long and complex psalm that, according to commentator F.B. Meyer, was probably sung as a processional hymn as the Ark of God was carried into Jerusalem. Let's take a moment to explore this context before we dig into the psalm itself. The story appears in 2 Samuel 6. David had recently become king over all of Israel. He subsequently marched upon Jerusalem (with its stronghold, Mount Zion), occupied it, and claimed it as his capital. He also repulsed a last-ditch attack by the Philistines. Now ready to begin his reign in earnest, David decided to move the Ark of God to his new capital city. The Ark, recall, was the focal point of God's dwelling among the Israelites. It was built by Israelite craftsman, who followed instructions given to Moses by God Himself. The Ark was a box about 4 by 2½ by 2½ feet. It was constructed of acacia wood, covered in gold, and topped by the Kapporet (often called the “mercy seat”) and two golden cherubim with outstretched wings. The Ark was carried on poles that slid through golden rings attached to each corner. Inside the Ark, Moses had placed the tablets of the Ten Commandments, a sample of manna, and Aaron's rod. 

David prepared a grand procession of thirty thousand Israelites to bring the Ark from the house of Abinadab up to Jerusalem. As Uzzah and Ahio, two sons of Abinadab, drove the cart carrying the Ark, David and the others danced and sang before God. Everything went smoothly until they reached the threshing floor of Nacon. Here one of the oxen pulling the cart stumbled, and Uzzah reached out and touched the Ark to steady it. He was immediately struck dead, for he had, perhaps unthinkingly, placed his hand upon the Ark, treating it like any other object and presuming that he could preserve this most sacred piece from destruction. Remember, too, that the Ark was designed to be carried in a specific way, by the poles held by golden rings and also only by Levites, the Israelite priests. Uzzah and Ahio were definitely not Levites, and the Ark was definitely not supposed to be carried in a cart. 

At the sudden death of Uzzah, David recognized that something was very wrong. He was angry at first (perhaps that his grand procession had been disrupted); then he was terribly afraid as he recognized his mistake and the consequences of it. He decided that perhaps he wouldn't take the Ark up to Jerusalem after all, and he left it at the house of Obededom the Gittite. Apparently, Obededom and his family treated the Ark with the reverence it deserved, for the Lord blessed them generously during the three months the Ark resided in their care. David, hearing about their good fortune, changed his mind and decided once again to take the Ark up to Jerusalem.

This time he did it right. Men, presumably Levites, bore the Ark properly by its poles. Every six steps, David offered animal sacrifices. He danced before God with great joy as the Israelites shouted and sounded the trumpet. When the procession arrived in Jerusalem, the Ark was settled inside a tent, and David offered numerous sacrifices, blessed the people, and distributed a portion of food to each Israelite. Peace descended upon Israel.

Psalm 68, then, was probably sung during this second, successful procession. According to The Pulpit Commentary, the psalm can be divided into five sections:

1. An introduction of prayer and praise (verses 1-6)
2. God's actions during Israel's time in the wilderness (verses 7-10)
3. God's actions during the campaign to secure the Promised Land and during David's victories (verses 11-23)
4. The procession of God into the sanctuary (verses 24-27)
5. A prayer for God's favor in the future (verses 28-35)

This psalm covers a lot of territory! Essentially, it is a praise-filled mini-presentation of Israel's history, a song of prayer and adoration to the God Who had done so much for His people, and a plea for God's continued favor and help. Let's take a brief look at each of the five sections.

In the introduction, David calls on God to rise up and scatter His enemies, to blow them away like smoke and melt them like wax. This is the fate of the wicked, who act against God and His people. They perish before God's mighty power (verses 1-2). The righteous, on the other had, must be joyful and exult before God (Hebrew ‛âlats, literally “jump for joy”) (verse 3). They should be exceedingly jubilant, vigorously singing praise to God “Who rides upon the clouds” (verse 4) The Hebrew construction of this descriptive clause is interesting. The word used for clouds is actually ‛ărâbâh, which means desert or plain or wilderness. David is probably referring to Israel's time in the desert after their escape from Egypt. God led them during those forty years, appearing in the shekinah or fiery glory cloud. Riding in that cloud, He guided them through the wilderness to their homeland. Israel, therefore, should rejoice in His presence and in the Name He reveled to Moses and to them. God is with them. They know Him personally. This is certainly a cause for great joy.

David continues in verses 5-6. God has done great things for His people. He is a Father to orphans and a Protector to widows. He cares tenderly for the least fortunate. He “gives the desolate a home to live in” (verse 6). The Hebrew here literally means something like “He settles the solitary ones in families/households.” God creates families! He brings His people into relationships with Himself and with other people. He makes them His own children and provides them with the human love and care they need. People are not designed to live lonely lives, and if they turn to God, they never will. 

Finally in verse 6, David asserts that God will lead prisoners out of their captivity and into prosperity, but those who are rebellious and stubborn will live in a parched land where nothing can grow. These lines carry the potential for a rich spiritual interpretation. All people are captive to sin, but God leads the willing out of their sin and into peace and joy. They will prosper under God's care. Those who remain rebellious, on the other hand, are dry and brittle spiritually. They do not allow God to lead them to refreshment, so they do not grow. Instead, they wither.

In the next section, verses 7-10, David reminds his hearers about God's actions on behalf of His people when Israel was in captivity and traveling through the wilderness. God brought them out of Egypt. He went before them as they marched through the wilderness (verse 7), leading them in a pillar of cloud and fire and crushing any enemy who threatened them. He showed them His great power at Sinai with “thunder and lightening,” a “thick cloud on the mountain,” a trumpet blast so loud that the people trembled, an earthquake, and a great fire indicating God's presence (see Exodus 19:16-19). God also gave His needy people water and food for their travels, and He restored to them the heritage He had promised, the land of Canaan. 

Of course, there were already people living in this land, and the Israelites needed to conquer them before they could settle there. In verses 11-23, David outlines this process, which has also been completely directed by God. Under God's command, the kings of Canaan had been scattered and the Israelites were dividing up the spoils of their victories (verses 11-14). He had crushed Israel's enemies and brought His people into their new homeland (verses 21-23). God is now establishing His dwelling on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, for His Ark is traveling up the mountain while the Israelites accompany Him with gifts of joy and the other mountains look on in envy (verses 15-18). 

David cries out in exultation, “Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears us up; God is our salvation. Our God is a God of salvation, and to God, the Lord, belongs escape from death” (verses 19-20). God has delivered His people from slavery. He has fed them in the desert and led them through the wilderness. He has saved their lives countless times. He has brought them into their promised homeland and cleared the way before them. If we look closely at the Hebrew of these two verses, we can better understand the intensity of this cry of praise. David is literally saying that the God of salvation has borne their burdens for them each day. The word for salvation in verse 19 is yeshû‛âh, which should be familiar by now as the Hebrew root of Jesus' Hebrew name, Joshua. Without realizing it, David is looking ahead to a time when the God of salvation, Jesus, will bear His people's burdens all the way to the cross.

The next section, verses 24-27, describes the procession of the Ark into Jerusalem. The singers come first, then girls playing tambourines, and finally the musicians. All of Israel, a “great congregation” has turned out for this event. The princes of the various tribes are on hand, with the tribe of Benjamin, the youngest brother, and therefore the least in esteem, taking the lead. Once again, God has chosen the weakest to lead the strong. 

The psalm ends with a lengthy prayer for God's continued favor toward Israel and for the extension of that favor to the whole world (verses 28-35). “Summon Your might, O God,” David calls out,” show Your strength, O God, as You have done before us” (verse 28). Rebuke Israel's enemies. Trample them down (verse 30). Then David changes his perspective. He asks God to bring other nations to Him that they, too, may worship Him and offer Him tribute. “Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth;” he pleads, “sing praises to the Lord” (verse 32). Israel is the oldest brother of the nations, the one who has the task of leading its younger siblings to God. Listen to God, David tells the nations. Look at His majesty in Israel. Notice His power. See what He can do. “Awesome is God in His sanctuary,” David proclaims, “the God of Israel; He gives power and strength to His people” (verse 35). He will do so, David implies, for the whole world if only the nations turn to Him. 

David ends on a note of praise. “Blessed be God!” he exclaims, probably dancing with abandon before the Ark.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Little Something Extra...Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

A Lived Faith

Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” 

Today's second reading from Hebrews 11 begins with these words. They can slip by easily so that we hardly notice them, but they merit a close examination because they help us understand the meaning of faith. 

To begin, let's look at the Greek words in this sentence. The definitions below come from

* Faith – pistis – “firm persuasion, the conviction which is based upon hearing, not upon sight...”; “the trust which one entertains or puts in a person or thing”; “a conviction based upon trust, not upon knowledge”

* Realization – hupostasis - “confidence”; “a standing under; that which is set or stands under, a foundation, origin, beginning, hence, spoken of that quality which leads one to stand under, endure or undertake anything, for example firmness, boldness, confidence, then, the foundation or ground of this confidence, well-founded trust”; “that which has foundation”; “that which has actual existence; a substance, real being” 

* What is hoped for – elpizomenōn – what is expected and trusted 

* Evidence – elenchos – “demonstration, proof, convincing argument” 

* Of things – pragmatōn – “a thing done or to be done; deed, act, fact, matter” 

* Not seen – ou blepomenōn – “to use the eyes; to see, look; used of the act of seeing, even though nothing is seen; to observe accurately with desire” 

What stands out in these definitions is confidence. Faith has confidence. Faith trusts that something is real, even if it cannot be seen. Faith is firmly persuaded of reality. Faith is a true foundation for hope. Faith offers convincing evidence that there is more to life than what our senses tell us. 

But faith is even more. According to the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, faith must be lived out if it is to be real. It cannot remain on a merely psychological or emotional level. It has to be put into action. The author holds up Abraham as an example of this lived faith. 

Abraham heard God telling him to leave his native country and journey into parts unknown, to a promised land far away. Abraham believed God. He had faith, and he put his faith into action. He didn't just sit back and say, “Yes, God, I believe you,” and stay put. He moved. He left behind everything familiar and began a new life. 

Abraham's living faith didn't end there. He believed when God told him that he would have a son, even though he and Sarah were both old. He acted on that belief, and sure enough, they had Isaac. 

Abraham even took his faith one step further. God told him to sacrifice Isaac, his only son. Abraham had faith that God could do anything, even raise someone from the dead, so he acted. He took Isaac up Mount Moriah, prepared an altar, laid his son on it, and raised his knife. Just in time, an angel called out to Abraham, telling him not to do the least thing to his son. He had passed the test. He had put his faith into action to the maximum extent. 

Faith, then, is “the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen,” but it is also something that must be actively lived, day in, day out, with all the challenges, risks, and rewards that a life of faith entails.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 67

Psalm 67 begins with a request: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make His face to shine upon us.” This verse is reminiscent of the blessing in Numbers 6:24-25 (“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you.”), which is part of a formal liturgical benediction spoken by the Israelite priests upon the people. Psalm 67, then, seems to be both a prayer and a meditation based on and flowing from this benediction. It is a prayer for the whole world, for both Israel and the Gentile nations, that God may bless them and that they might know Him as He is. It is also a meditation on exactly what is means to be blessed by God.

Let's begin by taking a close look at the opening verse: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make His face to shine upon us.” The Hebrew word for “be gracious” is chânan, which suggests bestowing mercy, pity, and favor. The psalmist is asking God to pour His favor down upon Israel. To show them His mercy. To take pity on their weakness. He also requests God's blessing (Hebrew bârak). The verb form used in this verse is intensive. The requested blessing is to be strong, powerful, and profound. Finally, the psalmist longs for God's “face to shine upon us.” He desires the intense light of God to illuminate Israel. God's light comes from within His being. He is light itself, and wonderful things happen when that Light shines upon His people. They come to know Him better. They see themselves more clearly. They grow in understanding of the divine plan. They make better choices, conforming their lives to the Light that shines upon them. If their hearts are open to God's light, they become closer to the people He intends them to be.

In the next verse, the psalmist explains why he is asking for this blessing: “that Your way may be known upon earth, Your saving power among all nations.” Israel, God's firstborn, is a priestly, prophetic, and kingly older brother to the Gentiles, and Israel's blessing reveals God to the whole world. By observing Israel, the nations see God's way (Hebrew derek – course of life, manner, habit, character) and God's saving power (Hebrew yeshû‛âh – salvation, deliverance, victory, health, prosperity). They learn Who God is and what He does for His people. Eventually, too, they will behold God's ultimate yeshû‛âh, Yeshuah, Joshua, Jesus, the Savior of the world, Who comes out of Israel to bring all people back to God.

In verse 3, the psalmist pleads, “Let the peoples praise You, O God; let all the peoples praise You.” The psalmist longs for fulfillment, for the whole world to know and worship God as Israel does. The plea continues in verse 4: “Let the nations be glad and sing for joy...” Let the Gentiles rejoice (Hebrew śâmach) and give a ringing cry (Hebrew rânan in its intensive form). May they respond to God just as Israel is called to do. Why? Because God judges “the peoples with equity” and guides “the nations upon earth.” God treats all people with fairness when He judges. He is perfectly righteous, perfectly just. Further, He is in control. He governs (Hebrew nâchâh) all people, guiding them and leading them. The psalmist prays that the Gentiles will recognize these truths and give God the praise and worship due to Him. He is intent upon his prayer, repeating his plea in verse 5: “Let all the peoples praise You, O God; let all the peoples praise You.”

Verse 6 reminds the Israelites, and everyone else, that God has already blessed them: “The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us.” The Israelites have tasted the good things of this world, which they recognize as signs of God's favor. They have received abundance from their God (notice the possessive pronoun; the Israelites claim God as their own).

The psalm ends with a two-part prayer that sums up the previous verses: “May God continue to bless us; let all the ends of the earth revere Him.” May God still bless Israel, and may that blessing lead the rest of the world to turn to Him with proper respect and worship that they, too, may receive His blessing. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Little Something Extra...Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Right Kind of Treasure

Today's readings nudge us to adjust our focus. They present some important questions and invite us to answer them honestly. How attached are we to the things of this world? Where do we keep our treasures? Do we understand that our time on earth is limited? Is Christ the center of our lives? 

First Reading – Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23

The author of Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth, often seems like a gloomy sort of fellow with a cynical outlook on life, but he also makes some good points. In today's reading, he exclaims, “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” The Hebrew word for vanity is hăbêl. Other possible translations include breath, vapor, emptiness, futility, uselessness, nothingness, worthlessness, meaninglessness, and delusion. Compared to the things of God, the things of this earth are all of that...mere vanity. 

Qoheleth continues, reminding us that all the material things we have worked so hard for will eventually belong to someone else. We will have toiled and worried for nothing if we put all our focus on the things of this world. They will one day be lost to us forever. 

Psalm 90

In the same vein, the psalm teaches us that we must “number our days aright.” We are, after all, mere dust, and to dust we will one day return. We pass away as quickly as grass when we consider God's point of view. Our time on earth is short, and we must use it rightly, to gain “wisdom of heart” and true joy.

Second Reading – Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11

After hearing so much about how vain and fleeting our earthly lives are, we might be feeling a little depressed by this point. St. Paul has the cure. “If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above,” he says, “where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.” We need to focus on Christ, not on our earthly lives or material things. 

St. Paul continues, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with Him in glory.” At our Baptism, we died with Christ. We received a share in His saving sacrifice. If we remain in a state of grace, we are in God, and God is in us. This is the focus of our lives, Christ in glory and God in us.

We must, therefore, act accordingly. “Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry,” Paul orders. “Stop lying to one another, since you have taken off the old self with its practices...” We are new creatures in Christ, and Christ ought to be our “all in all.” 

Gospel – Luke 12:13-21

In today's Gospel, a member of the crowd approaches Jesus and asks Him for a favor: “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” Jesus probably sighs a little bit at this request, which is so focused on earthly things, but He turns the incident into a teaching moment. “Friend,” He replies, “who appointed Me as your judge and arbitrator?” Then He speaks to the crowd, “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” Material things are not the be-all-end-all of life. There is so much more. 

Jesus continues with a parable. A rich man's lands produce a “bountiful harvest.” He is pleased, of course, but he soon discovers that his barns will not hold his latest crop. He makes a plan; he will tear down his old barns and build bigger ones to hold all his wonderful possessions. Satisfied, he says to himself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!” But his enjoyment is short lived. That very night, God calls to him, “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?” His excellent harvest and many possessions no longer mean anything at all. They will pass on to someone else, and the rich man will face God empty-handed.

“Thus will it be,” Jesus concludes, “for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.” How do we become rich in what matters to God? We must become rich in love. We must put the things of this earth in their proper place and honestly answer the questions posed by today's readings. We must put Christ at the very center of our lives. Then we will have the right kind of treasure, the kind stored up for us in Heaven.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 66

Psalm 66 shows us how to praise God, how to offer Him the worship and love that He deserves. There are numerous ways, according to the psalmist, who is not identified in the inscription but could very well be King David. The psalmist begins by calling “all the earth” to praise God (verse 1). Worship of the one true God is not limited to the Israelites but must be extended to all the nations on earth. 

Ways to Praise

1. “Make a joyful noise to God” (verse 1). This is a loud cry, a noise that breaks out of a person's very soul, expressing the joy he or she finds in God. 

2. “...sing the glory of His Name” (verse 2). The Name of God is more than a word that people use to identify Him. His Name refers to His character, His honor, and His authority. We can praise Him by singing of Who God is in Himself, of His Name, which is glorious.

3. “...give to Him glorious praise” (verse 2). The praise we give to God should be glorious, splendid, weighty, and meaningful. We must praise from the heart.

4. Identify God's awesome deeds (verse 3). We can praise God by remembering what He has done for His people and acknowledging His power. Recalling God's past deeds and reflecting on His majesty help us to know God better and to hope for the future, trusting that God does not change and will continue to do awesome things. 

5. Acknowledge the responsibility to praise (verse 4). We can praise God by telling Him that He is worthy of the praises of the whole world. 

6. Tell the story of salvation history (verses 5-6). The psalmist recalls how God “turned the sea into dry land” and how the Israelites “passed through the river on foot.” He is remembering two separate events here, the parting of the Red Sea during the Exodus and the Israelite crossing of the Jordan River into the Promised Land. This shorthand version of history invites deep reflection on how God loves His people.

7. Rejoice in God's reign (verses 6-7). God is in control. He sees all. He will not let evil win.

8. Bless God (verse 8). Kneel before Him in humility and adore Him.

9. Thank God for His blessings (verse 9). God preserves our lives and keeps us on the right path if only we listen to Him. Offer Him gratitude for that.

10. Acknowledge that God sometimes gives us trials in order to test us and strengthen us (verses 10-12). Our difficulties and suffering happen for a reason. God allows them because we grow from them.

11. Be grateful that God rescues us from our trials and brings us into a “spacious place” (verse 12). After our struggles, if we remain faithful, we will receive an abundant reward.

12. Bring offerings to God (verses 13-15). For the psalmist, this meant burnt offerings of animals. For Christians, this means our whole lives. We offer to God everything we have and everything we are, all our possessions, our hopes and dreams, our emotions, our loved ones, our work and leisure, our whole lives, our whole selves, body and soul. Most of all, though, we offer the Son, Jesus Christ, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, to His Father in the Eucharist. He is our greatest offering, for He has given Himself for us. The sacrifice of the Cross is re-presented at every Mass that we may participate in this greatest offering and apply it to our lives.

13. “I will pay You my vows...” (verse 13). When we make promises to God, we must keep them. The greatest promise we have ever made was at our baptism, when through the sacrament, we received God's indwelling presence and became members of His family. We entered into a covenant, a bond of self-giving love, with God when we took our baptismal vows (or if we were infants, when our parents took those vows for us and accepted the responsibility to raise us accordingly). We praise God when we live that covenant in every aspect of our lives.

14. Witness to God's action in your life (verses 16-19). Tell of the wonderful things He has done for you. Don't be afraid to speak up and talk to people about God.

15. Fear God (verse 16). Recognize that God is all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing, and all-beautiful, that He is so far above us that our minds can never fully understand Him. Show Him appropriate reverence.

16. Pray (verse 17). Cry out to God with any need or desire, any joy or sorrow. 

17. Do not cherish iniquity in the heart (verse 18). Don't cling to sin. Repent, confess, and let go. 

18. Be confident that God will hear and respond to prayer (verse 19). God listens to us always. He hears the deepest longings of our hearts. He knows us better than we know ourselves, and He will always answer us. 

19. Remember God's “steadfast love” (verse 20). God loves you. Never, ever forget that.